Success and Failure

Why are we so obsessed with success? And who defines success, is it ourselves or our peers? From day one we are taught to do well in school, get a high paying job, and be successful. But why? What makes successful people better? Are they happier? Are they more fulfilled? Is accomplishment a fleeting high that just makes you crave more?

I’ve always done well in school and I’ve worked hard to succeed at everything I do. But why did I do it? I did it because that what I thought my parents wanted. That’s what I thought society demanded. That’s what I thought I needed. Looking back at my Peace Corps service, I see a few great successes, for example the cashew conference I helped administer. It was successful because it a) happened b) was well received c) inspired other PC countries to adopt similar programs and d) didn’t fail. We see success and failure as opposites on a spectrum. They seem like such concrete concepts; they can’t both exist at the same time. I know there are projects that also failed, like my bushfire training. That event just fell straight on its face. It failed because it was sabotaged, undermined, and no one showed up.

Now that I’m sitting in limbo once again, contemplating my service, I’ve found myself wondering if I was successful as a Volunteer. What parameters define success to me? From staging, I always said that if I can impact just one person then I will have been successful. But to other Volunteers, they define success by the number of projects you did or your biggest event or how long you stayed at site. Everyone has a different perception of success, but they impose that perception onto others. So again I ask – why are we so obsessed with success? What is it about success that makes us judge our peers or judge ourselves so harshly?

When you look at success from a macro-level, you see that the developed world is successful. The developing world is not. You see billionaires who have been successful in their careers. You see countries who have failed to utilize their resources. Success is often tied to money, the more money you have the more successful you’ve been. Failure implies laziness – you aren’t trying hard enough. Success implies attributes that our society has deemed favorable: initiative, ambition, creativity, and hard work. It goes back to survival of the fittest: the strong will succeed.

One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned during Peace Corps is that failure does not make you weak. It does not mean you are lazy or lack the ambition to work hard. It does not mean you haven’t been successful. Failure is not concrete.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Edison

True failure is not learning from the experience. So while I have failed at many things during my two years in Peace Corps, I do not see my service as a failure. There are times when I wish I would have done more, accomplished more things, or impacted more people, but I can’t change the crazy circumstances that have impacted my service. I can’t go back and fix my old site. I can’t make my current situation just disappear. I can’t go back and kill all the parasites that infected me. I can’t undo mefloquine’s terrible side effects. I accomplished what I could given the hand I was dealt. I may never know what impact I had on the people I met. And even if I did do more projects, there is no guarantee that more means a better chance of success.

I know that I will continue to struggle with accepting this year’s seemingly endless supply of hardships and their impact on my work. My failures have been more valuable to me than the successes, because I’ve learned from them. I’ve learned that you can’t control everything, but you can control your attitude. I’ve learned that happiness isn’t measured by money or material goods.
I’ve learned that success is a measurement of your fulfillment with your work.

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 reasons why my service was impactful.

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